Composer of Scribblenauts & Drawn to Life talked about the production of high-quality audio for video games and described his new game “321”.
80.lv had the pleasure of talking to David J. Franco – composer and sound designer, who worked on Scribblenauts & Drawn to Life. In this interview he described his work in the game industry, the production of high quality audio and also touched a bit on the question of “321” – a new indie game from his team.
My brother basically got me in to games as a kid. He studied (hard) to become a programmer and became a Senior coder at Creative Assembly at Sega. I always wanted to tell stories, and I felt that I could do so through music. Originally when I was around 10-11 I was focused on film, but realised that wouldn’t be a realistic option. Games seemed like a great way (back in 1999) to tell a story, and to use music and it was fun. I jumped online as quick as my dial up connection would let me and plugged away at some indie projects experimenting with my terrible music. Eventually I met Joseph Tringali who was just finishing up at a company in Hong Kong and was heading back to the states to create 5TH Cell. He contacted me shortly after for some music for some demos they were producing for Nokia Series 40. They were pitched to THQ Wireless and shortly after they pitched Drawn to Life successfully and that gave way to the following titles.
Scribblenauts & Drawn to Life
Listening back to these tracks they still make me smile even though they’re terribly grating on the ears. The biggest challenge was the memory size, I believe I was allowed a whopping 4meg for all the audio. I’m sure a lot of audio designers from 8 bit / 16 bit days would laugh at that limitation but for me it was a little bit of a struggle. I believe we had around 50 songs, including an ending song which was audio based, not MIDI as well as a hundred sound effects. Scribblenauts was even bigger. As a result it was about using instruments in unconventional ways to create noises for sound effects and to reuse as much as possible and I think it worked. With all those old games I’d only make music that made me smile. If I didn’t smile, it sucked.
Importance of Audio
I don’t think it’s neglected anymore. Quite the opposite, everyone’s putting so much money into it and it’s become quite the area of interest. I think audio easily dictates what the player should feel, sometimes too easily so, but it can certainly be used to a developer’s advantage. Without sound a game can really lose all character, but it’s also important to know when not to use sound. In our current game we have a lot of silence, and the big areas of sound really pull users in because they know something is happening. When there’s too much audio it is too easy to become disconnected from it, and not hear it anymore.
It’s always been last minute (we have a week left scenario) for most app developers I’ve worked for. 5TH Cell have been quite good in that they got me onboard early on to start exploring musical avenues. With my own project I actually left our P.T. audio right until the end just because I needed to see it in action to see what it really was – soon we are going to release that and it’ll be interesting if you take a look at it, I’ll try and keep you posted.
So to answer your question, I don’t think there’s a right and wrong time, you can be too late and not have enough time. But I think it’s relative to the project you’re working on. Some games really don’t shine until the very last moments when you see everything in place and you realise exactly what it is, and what audio would do that justice. Others may have more familiar concepts (or be clones of other games) and you can nail it before you’ve even seen it – sometimes working to images of WIPs for example.
I use Cubase and Wavelab and I’m still working on a laptop because I haven’t had the time to migrate all my licenses and samples to my new PC beast I used to travel around the world with my laptop and make all my work on headphones. In fact the Scribblenauts soundtrack was put together on a sofa somewhere in Malaysia – including the sound effects with my girlfriend at the time. If you can be creative, and resourceful, you can do a lot with very little.
The game is being produced by a core team of 5 volunteers. Myself, Max (our lead coder, Book of Unwritten Tales2) with the help of Andrew Oakley from Creative Assembly who has produced some art for one of our mini-games. The others are newcomers who are learning the ropes and we’ve started to put something together that’s very special.
The game tells its story through the evolution of the adventure game, it is ultimately a dozen or more adventure games piled into one massive adventure game with an evoking story full of references. The mini games are simple in nature, but offer a way in which to communicate with the player and allow the player to interact with the bigger game around them and see the bigger picture of what 321 is. The game borrows from so many genres, it’s tense, and isolating, it’s dramatic, and it’s full of nostalgia, and I just hope people give it a chance to see what it really is.
Unity. Chosen because of it’s great 2D and 3D support and flexibility. Our game is essentially 15 games in one so it’s quite time consuming with mechanics and we needed an engine that was flexible and accessible to do so.
The design has evolved over the course of production – as I believe any good design should. It’s an on-going project right until shipment. I don’t believe you can create anything from scratch and 2 years later have it be to the T with that design, and be good. If you can, wow! But I think as a designer you need to see the game, you need to respond to what you see, and make crucial changes as necessary. Art in any form is always talking to you so you got to listen to it.
Leaving it to the last minute like any other developer. Whether that’s because of my previous work or just because it works better that way, I’ve found again that seeing it in the full flesh makes it easier to deliver the audio. It was actually quite hard putting the audio together (So far) because the game strikes a difficult balance between a whole bunch of genres.